Chickens are a rewarding animal to keep, there is something about cracking fresh eggs for breakfast that came from your very own flock, plus you can use their droppings as fertilizer in your garden, you can let them wander the yard and have them eat critters and they keep the snakes away, which is a bonus if you live out of town as I do, so since I think chickens are the bee’s knees here is a guide to how much space you need to keep your own backyard chickens.
How much space do you need to keep backyard chickens?
first If you live in a residential area you need to check if you can have chickens in your backyard. You can call your local council or visit their website.
THE CHICKEN COOP
you can buy a coop online or at your local hardware or pet shop, you can get really simple ones from around $140 which are smaller and meant for four or five chickens and need to be moved often or allow you chook out to forage around your garden.
I won’t link chook pens here, as I have never bought one and I don’t want to link to something I don’t know will work for you, but finding chook pens online is easy, there are many to choose from and there are also hundreds of DIY ideas as well if you can make one yourself.
Coop size to the number of chickens ratio
- You want at least 4 square feet per chicken. (this isn’t the structure itself but includes space to roam, either free-ranged or fenced in.)
- This means in a coop that is 4×8 feet, you could comfortably fit 8 chickens
- ( 1 adult chicken for every 4 square feet you can double that space if you have a rooster especially in the run) they need space for eating, drinking, roosting and a laying area all in separate spaces.
- If you intend on letting them out, you can keep the coop small and simple, a place to lay and roost.
- If you don’t want to let them out you might need to invest a little more time, effort and money into making your chickens a home that they can live in full time.
WHAT YOU NEED IN THE COOP
Chickens like to sleep up off the ground, it makes them feel safe, to be out of reach of a possible fox or cat attacks, (and actually in the town or country alike you have to beware of cats!) They were once wild animals that slept in trees away from danger and that instinct is still ingrained.
If your chickens can’t roost at night, they will be very stressed and unhappy.
Another big advantage of having a roost is having your chickens up off the ground and away from pathogens, bacteria and external pests like mites and lice.
be sure that your roost space is big enough, this might mean having more than one roosting bar, to avoid overcrowding, you need at least 8 inches of roosting bar per chicken.
A good clean water source
water is critical, that much is obvious, keep it clean and still (chickens won’t drink from flowing water) you can buy fancy water feeders to keep a constant source, especially if you are unable to check the water often, or keep it simple with a couple of shallow buckets or containers.
If you have more than 6 chickens try to have more than one bowl of water and don’t place them in the corners where they can be guarded (see chicken pecking order) and in summer change them and fill them multiple times per day. One hot day without water and your chickens could keel over, especially older birds.
You need a feeder or a place to give them feed that is clean and covered from the rain. You can also do it every day, by hand if you wish, but you need to be there every day which isn’t always possible so having a feeder even if you don’t always use it is a good idea.
I have a feeder but my kids love to feed the chickens their pellets and grains by hand every morning.
Be sure if you do it this way that they get enough, each chicken needs around half a cup of feed per day.
Again, you don’t need anything fancy, just something you can use to put in pellets and grain, it’s important that it stays dry because if your chickens eat wet grain and pellets they can sour in the crop of your chickens (the crop is a pouch in the chicken’s chest where the food is stored before being properly digested and needs to be kept in good condition or the chicken will develop a condition called sour crop)
A place for your chickens to lay their eggs.
Your chickens laying area needs to be high enough that it is above eye level of your chickens so they don’t see their eggs and become interested in snacking on them. This is as simple as placing them on a shelf or laying down some bricks or wood to raise the laying boxes/tubs/baskets high enough off of the ground.
once you have something for chickens to lay in, fill them with clean hay, straw or shredded paper.
The most important aspects of a lying area are cleanliness and safety, your chickens want to feel secure when laying, and while you don’t need to get fancy, you want something you chickens can jump into, that is at least walled around 3 sides to make them feel secure, and stop the wind.
Don’t position the layers where they will sit under direct sunlight.
They need to be sheltered out of the wind and rain and you need more than one if you have more than 5 chickens, they will share, but you will have cracked eggs if they are all walking and sitting on the one pile of eggs.
getting the laying area right is crucial, as you can have egg-bound chickens or be playing egg treasure hunt if they don’t like it.
clean hay and straw and/or wood chips
(wood chips on the ground only- not in the layers) Have hay and wood chips or sawdust (wood chips and sawdust optional, if you have access, if not don’t worry) on the ground near the layers if they are outside so the chickens will walk over it and have clean feet before they lay.
have lots of fresh hay to be changing out and cleaning your coop and laying area at least once a week.
Rice straw is a good choice. You need to have a place to store it, keeping it clean and dry.
WHAT TO FEED YOUR FLOCK
recycle those kitchen scraps, any leftovers, and cuttings, chickens love them.
Chickens will eat anything, and you don’t have to be too fussy when it comes to feeding them.
If you have egg-laying birds, some food like garlic and onions may change the flavour of your eggs, you will read in some places that garlic is a no-no for chickens, I disagree and have used garlic to be eaten for health reasons and topically on my chickens with great success.
You can tell a lot about the health of your egg-laying chickens by assessing the quality of your eggshells and egg whites.
When you collect your eggs they should have a good strong shell, and the white should be thick and coat the yolk when you crack the egg into the pan the egg white should stay stiff and not splatter into a watery mess (an old egg will do this, I am talking of a fresh egg, a few days old.)
assessing the quality of your eggs regularly is important, as your chickens can become unwell and egg bound with a poor diet. If you find one of your chickens is laying poor quality eggs, with thin shells and watery whites you need to give your chickens a little extra care with supplements and lots of calcium until you see good healthy eggs again.
Foods to avoid
- One food especially fatal to chickens is dried beans, especially kidney beans, if you feed your chickens unsoaked, unsprouted or uncooked beans they could die in an hour.
the beans contain a chemical called phytohaemagglutinin and if your chicken gets hold of even a few they are always fatal.
- Another food that can prove fatal and will make your chickens very sick is chocolate, just like we know not to give it to cats and dogs, you chickens also do very badly.
- the skin and seed of avocado contains a chemical called percin, which is large doses can cause heart problems and breathing problems and in 48 hours can prove fatal. the avacado flesh is very healhty for chickens. I put the odd avacado skin and seed in my sraps and it does no harm, but I have 16 chickens in my pen that share, and I only put in one, and no more.
- Mouldy soft fruit and vegetables, I have fed my chickens mouldy fridge experiments in the past, and while I have all my chickens, I will say that thier have been times when they weren’t all that healthy, and so now I compost any old fruit and veg that is growing mould rather than giving it to my chooks.
Foods for healthy chickens
feed is the most expensive aspect of keeping chickens, you can buy pellets which are a mix of mashed up grains, vitamins and minerals, or you can keep it as natural as possible with whole grains and scraps, chooks love scraps, and you should try and give them scraps daily, you don’t have to be fussy, just avoid the foods listed above.
Another way to cut the cost of feeding chickens is if you have the space allowing them to wander, they will find grubs and bugs and all sorts which keeps them happy and healthy, this isn’t possible for everyone and I don’t let my chickens wander too much, as they devour my veggie garden and anything else I try to plant around.
you can source grains, pellets and supplements at your local farm supply store or pet shop.
Chickens need lots of protein, as they don’t create amino acids in their gut for the creation of protein.
Pellets are good for this as they often contain a mix of grains and seeds that are protein-heavy, and so while I advocate for getting plenty of whole grains into your chickens, pellets are good too and should make up of at least 5-10% of their daily food.
Milk is a good source of protein and can be fed instead of water for half the day, with water available the other half of the day. I don’t do this every day, instead, I opt for once per week.
Flaxseed is high in protein and omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids and is an excellent addition to sprinkle through your feed. I use flaxseed meal and oil in my egg grit mix every few days.
Laying hens need more calcium, you can include either oyster shells, limestone or aragonite for chickens to make strong shells.
Laying hens need about 4% calcium in their diet, and you would have to feed a hen two to three eggshells every day to meet this requirement.
You should include shells both their eggshells and the crushed shells of oysters, in the diet of your laying chickens.
You need to be careful about feeding your chickens eggshells, as they confuse the cracked shells with their eggs and will become egg eaters, (which will mean you will have to cull those chickens)
You should cook the shells in the oven until you smell them cooking and then crush them up and mix them with the rest of the feed.
Cooking the shells will change the smell of the shells and stop your chickens from eating their eggs.
feeding you chickens wholegrains is better than feeding them only ground grains in pellets, since oxidation occurs after grinding, reducing the nutritional content of the grain.
If you have adult chickens that haven’t eaten many grains before, you need to introduce them to whole grains slowly, start with 5% of their diet for around two weeks, this is important as the gizzards of chickens that aren’t used to eating many whole grains are smaller and they will struggle to grind up the grain if they eat too much which could kill your chickens.
Every week or two after the first two weeks, slowly increase the number of whole grains until you reach the desired percentage you wish to feed your chickens.
Feeding them wholegrains for 70 to 80 % of their diet, the other 30-20 with some pellets and scraps is a good and healthy diet for your chickens, just be sure to phase into it.
If you are going to be using wholegrains look for local farmers to buy from to cut down costs, or buy in bulk and store it in a cool dry place (a 44-gallon drum is ideal)
WHICH GRAIN IS BEST FOR HEALTHY CHICKENS?
No grain on its own is ideal, I know I have just said you should try and include wholegrain as they are an excellent source of all sorts of minerals and proteins but you need to vary your wholegrain choices.
Commercial chickens are fed corn or maize and are loaded up with soybeans for protein, this is a horrible diet for a chicken, and this one is used for maximum egg-laying or meat production. (My chickens and my family don’t eat any soy products as they create havoc with your hormones.)
You should aim to switch up the grains, wheat, barley, oats, rye, millet and corn. All have something good and bad.
- Wheat can slow digestion but is a good substitute for and is higher in protein than corn.
- barley is less palatable, and your chicken won’t eat it if their is something better around.
- Oats have less energy and contain beta glucan which can cause a thick gel to form in the chickens intestines if too much is consumed.
- Rye inhibits growth, and shouldn’t be fed to chicks.
- Millet is a good energy substitute but is low is protein.
so while all whole grains have good things about them, you shouldn’t choose one and make that a huge part of your chicken’s diet, switch it up, either in batched or buy a mix. (I use whatever grain I can source at the time and it’s fine because I add pellets)
Don’t freak out and think it’s rocket science, chickens aren’t fussy, and you can buy a bag or drum or wheat or oats and feed it with some pellets and scraps and you’ll be good to go!
HOW TO KEEP FOOD AVAILABLE FOR CHICKENS
the most important thing to remember and prepare for is keeping your chicken’s food dry.
It needs to be away from the water source– you don’t want the chickens coming to the feeder with dripping beaks. (eating wet pellets can cause major health problems in your chickens such as respiratory illness and sour crop .)
make sure your feed is accessible to chickens of all sizes.
SUPPLEMENTS FOR HEALTHY CHICKENS
Just like humans, your chickens need minerals, salt, probiotics and vitamins.
Pellets are good for this, but I don’t rely solely on pellets for my chicken’s supplements, I do not however spend money on fancy chicken potions to make up my chicken’s supplement needs.
Minerals can be found in diatomaceous earth (fossilized remains of tiny, aquatic organisms called diatoms) this is good as a source of minerals and controls internal parasites and it also kills any bug with an exoskeleton, which is lice, mites, fleas and more, so having this in your chook pen for your chickens to bathe in, is essential.
Having a dust bath is essential for chickens, they need it to keep clean and healthy, when I went through having mites take over my flock, this was an element I was missing.
You can fill a tub big enough for chickens to hop into with clean dirt and diatomaceous earth, or dig a shallow hole in clean dry dirt for chickens to have a dust bath, they love dust baths and it keeps them clean and free of external parasites.
You can use ash from a fire, bentonite clay sprinkled into the dirt, or you can line a deeper hole (big enough for a chicken to sit in) with peat moss.
is an excellent source of micronutrients and salt. If you don’t have kelp sprinkle some sea salt flakes or pink salt into their scraps once a week.
Probiotics for healthy chickens
Plain greek yogurt given once a week is a source of probiotics. be sure the yogurt you give has no sugar and is full fat.
You can buy these separately and add them into the diet once a week, or you can source a poultry Nutri balancer, which contains all these minerals, I don’t buy this, but it’s an option, instead, I use what I listed above.
If you don’t have diatomaceous earth, apple cider vinegar is a good substitute, place a few tablespoons in their coop water, and spray on their feathers from a spray bottle in a water-cider vinegar mix. (I don’t do this all the time only when I feel they need it and I am out of clay or diatomaceous earth)
Cod liver oil
cod liver oil is essential, and there was one thing I would tell you to buy it would be this, especially if you have laying chickens. Calcium is an important aspect of a chickens diet, and calcium is hard to absorb, cod liver oil, with its fatty acids and vitamin d, helps your flock to absorb the calcium they need to maintain health. (see egg bound for cod liver oil)
You can supplement cod liver oil with a few tablespoons of flaxseed oil, which is filled with Fatty acids and omega 3’s. I use flaxseed oil whenever I run out of cod liver oil.
HOW TO CARE FOR YOUR CHICKENS
Chickens are an easy pet to care for really, and what I love about having chickens is nothing goes to waste.
- You want to keep the pen clean, once every week or two I rake out the muck from under the roost and put it on my garden.
- make sure they have a dust bath with diatomaceous earth, you can buy a tub for this or provide an area, just be sure to check if they are actually using it. (if I don’t have the diatomaceous earth I use ash from my fire)
- Switch out the hay, paper or straw in your laying area for clean, and again you can put the dirty straw through the compost or straight in the garden.
- Empty the water tub and give it a clean.
- Remove and debris from the feeder and refill.
- If there are any scraps in the pen that the chooks don’t seem to want to eat I dig them into the dirt, to create compost, this is good for your chickens as it promotes bugs in the soil (If you have a coop big enough to can move it out later and into your garden )
every Monday for me is chicken day.
- I give them a cup of greek yogurt for probiotics.
- A few tablespoons of apple cider vinegar in the water for healthy immune systems.
- A bowl of milk is put out while I clean the water bowl, and is left out for half a day, so they all get a drink of extra protein in the morning, then I replace the water at lunch time.
- Every few days I bake the egg shells I use, usually around 20, (I have seven laying now and another 8 to come on the lay in the next 12 months) and crush them up, adding either flaxseed meal or oats.
- These small chores take minutes, and they keep my chickens happy and healthy.
HOW THE CHICKEN PECKING ORDER AFFECTS YOUR SPACE
The pecking order is natural and unavoidable in a flock, pecking order rank determines which birds can access water and food, the comfiest layers and the most space on the roost bar.
You need to spend some time watching your chickens, especially after feeding to see if there is major bullying going on.
If you have more than 6 chickens you should try and have more than one feeder and one water bowl or the weakest chickens may get starved out from the stronger chickens guarding the feeder and water bowls.
The actual pecking can be brutal and if you notice a chicken with blood spots from being pecked, separate her from the flock and let her recuperate, and then you have to deal with the bully.
To deal with a bully chicken you need to separate her for a few days or a week, so the pecking order can establish without her, and when she is reintroduced she will be at the bottom where she can bully no more.
If you have hens only, then you will have one on top, who is the strongest, largest and in charge of keeping the flock safe as well as first dibs at the scraps and feeder.
If you have an established flock you cannot introduce new chickens right away, they need to be introduced slowly as to not send the pecking order into disarray, if you introduce 1 or two chickens into a flock of four or more, you will start a little civil war that could end in death for the new chickens.
To introduce new chickens to your flock you can fence a small area off in your coop or place them in a large cage in the coop for several days, letting them wander the coop when your other chickens are out.
Chickens have a terrible tendency to eat the chicken they peck to death, which if they draw blood when establishing the pecking order (which is common) the blood starts a frenzy in the flock and they will peck at the bloody wound over and over until death.
the pecking order while brutal is natural and if you have a flock that lives together for some time they will live in relative harmony with only a few skirmishes when one chicken steps out of line.
You should aim to have 1 rooster for every 12 hens, and you shouldn’t have a rooster if you have less than 6, as roosters have quite the sexual appetite and your chickens will become unhealthy.
If you have a rooster he is the top dog, the hens will look to him for leadership and he is in charge of keeping his flock safe. He watches for hawks up above, and if there is anything suspicious in the bushes he will usher his ladies away.
If you have an aggressive rooster who is trying to usurp your place at the top of the pecking order (to chickens and a rooster you are at the top and they will usually know this and respect it) then you need to show him who is boss.
With thick gloves you should catch him, and pin him down and hold him there for a minute, every time you go in the coop, this should let him know that you won’t be bullied out of your place, if he doesn’t stop his bullying and continues to attack you, the other option is the stew pot.
You don’t have to be fussy
chickens after all are just animals, and while I love having chickens, I love them for their eggs, frankly they really annoy me if they get let out, as they destroy my garden and poo all over my back doorsteps.
I don’t know how many times I have come running out of the house like a wild woman screaming at the beasties for eating my sugar snap peas and digging up my spring onions.
My pen isn’t immaculate and doesn’t need to be, while I have learned a lot in the past few years I haven’t changed my no-fuss approach to owning chooks, I don’t buy fancy foods and equipment and I don’t take them to a vet for every ailment, I keep them as healthy as I can with simple home ingredients and care and so far, it hasn’t failed me.
Don’t overfeed them, don’t give them too many treats it only makes them unhappy and fat chickens won’t lay eggs.
So enjoy your chickens, don’t feel like you need to have a fancy coop, make do, use what you can, provide basics necessities and good food and your chickens will reward you with eggs.
I am currently getting 5 eggs a day, and I hope for more of my younger chickens to start laying in the coming year, which I am looking forward to!
so as a round up to what those post:
A LIST OF WHAT YOU NEED TO KEEP HEALTHY CHICKENS!
- A coop with a roost
- layers off the ground
- hay or straw or shredded paper
- a water bowl
- A place to put pellets and grain that is dry/feeder
- a cage to place chickens if they are sick or need to be separated
- cod liver oil
- A source of calcium, oyster shells, egg shell grit (homemade) lime.
supplement your chickens with
- greek yogurt
- apple cider vinegar
- cod liver oil/flax seed oil
- diatomaceous earth for a dust bath/you can also use ash from a fire (be sure you didn’t burn plastics and nasties)
- oregano oil and get creative! grow some herbs to sprinkle through your roost and layers!
Thanks for reading!
the simple mamma
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